School Districts Team Up to Demand Better Textbooks

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The city schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, and his team have been beating the drum about the rollout of tougher Common Core standards and the need to get students better prepared for college and careers. Now the city's Department of Education is teaming up with other school districts to pressure the publishing industry to provide them with materials to meet those standards.

Mr. Walcott joined school superintendents from Chicago, Newark and Washington on Thursday for a panel discussion in Midtown Manhattan on what they're calling the Publishers' Criteria.

Simply put, they said they would reject any textbooks or other instructional materials that aren't aligned with the Common Core's more demanding math and literacy standards, which have been embraced by 45 states and the District of Columbia and will lead to new standardized tests by the 2014-15 school year.

"We, alone, represent $100 million worth of business," Mr. Walcott said of New York City. "I think through our collective efforts we want to make sure that the publishing industry understands the power of all of us working together."

Thirty-one districts have signed a pledge to make purchasing decisions based on criteria developed by some of the authors of the Common Core State Standards. New York City worked with the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the nation's large urban districts, to organize the collective effort.

Mike Casserly, the council's executive director, said it was important for districts to band together because some publishers are fiercely marketing their products as being up to the standards of the Common Core when they are not.

"People were actually putting Common Core Compatible, Common Core Ready stickers on their materials," he said, referring to items his office received last year.

Mr. Casserly noted that some districts were waiting for the economy to improve to purchase new materials. Some districts buy the same materials for all of their schools, but New York City leaves many purchasing decisions to its principals.

Student Achievement Partners, an organization founded by some of the authors of the Common Core, will help districts vet materials from publishers.

A founding member, Jason Zimba, who joined Thursday's event at the New York Public Library, gave examples of instructional materials that were not up to the rigors of the Common Core.

"This actually exists," he said, pointing to a page from a math book that came up with a way for students to remember multiplication tables by using words that rhyme with numbers. "Tree times door equals elf," he said, as the audience chuckled. "A friend said, 'Is door times three elf?' I said, 'Stop that, you're actually thinking.'"

Representatives of the publisher Scholastic in attendance said they welcomed the effort by districts to hold their feet to the fire. If anything, they said, one set of shared standards could make their jobs easier.

"Historically we know each state has had their own unique set of standards native to their own local needs," said Greg Worrell, president of the Scholastic Classroom and Community Group, which works directly with districts and offers print- and technology-based supplemental materials.

McGraw-Hill Education e-mailed a similar message.

"We understand that the Publishers' Criteria reflect a similar perspective and may be useful in guiding the creation and selection of Common Core content," wrote Tom Stanton, McGraw-Hill's communications director. "We have seen the guidelines, have had numerous interactions with Student Achievement Partners, and we respect their opinions, expertise, and leadership on the Common Core."

And Pearson, another educational products and testing company, e-mailed a statement from Nancy Winship, vice president for PreK-12 Literacy Product Development, said in part: "Pearson fully supports initiatives that will help schools successfully implement the Common Core State Standards, and we want all students to be college and career ready. As the implementation of the CCSS is a work in progress, Pearson is actively engaged with schools, districts and education leaders to help teachers and students prepare for these new college and career readiness standards."

Chancellor Walcott said New York City had not yet rejected any textbooks. But Deputy Chancellor Josh Thomases told the panel that there's a need for districts to join forces.

"We've spent an enormous amount of energy on the tasks students are doing and on the teachers' pedagogical practices, and where we're coming up short now is on the curricular resources that support that," he said.